“But what about the children?”
It’s a patronising question. And it was posed once too often to Dean Bryant by people who thought they were being broadminded about gay marriage.
It alarmed him the number of times the question gets thrown up, like the ultimate winning goal that settles the matter. But it’s a foul, he says.
Bryant believes anyone who uses this line doesn’t know what they’re talking about. But how to actually prove that? Easy. Ask the kids themselves.
The results are his play Gaybies, in which “gay babies” tell their own stories of growing up in a rainbow family. It opens this week, not long after Bryant has had another show he directed, Sweet Charity, open at the Opera House to awards and great reviews.
Yes, it’s been tricky doing both shows at once. A straightforward heartfelt piece during the day and a major musical at the Opera House at night. Right now it’s nice to be in the middle of this collection of beautiful truthful stories.
How many people did you interview for Gaybies?
About 40. All over Australia – Perth, Melbourne, Sydney – and New Zealand.
So, what about the children? The very question seems quite out of touch. But I’ll throw it at you: What about the children?
Yeah, it’s manipulative language. People think children are poor little things but the very question is emotional blackmail. “Of course, we better be careful.” The whole reason I wrote the show was to go to the actual children and ask: How’s your life going? How was your upbringing? How do you feel about how you were raised?
And the kids are great. Of course they're great. I interviewed kids as young as three and as old as 40, across a huge cross-section. Babies, primary school, high school, uni. Some have their own children now. You get a really good view as to whether their upbringing was weird.
The only downside that ever arises is prejudice from outside. Never anything from inside the house whatsoever. The sort of person who’d actually ask “What about the children?” is exactly the sort of person who’s causing problems for them.
The sort of person who asks “What about the children?” is exactly the sort of person who’s causing problems for them.
How do we all address that?
It needs to be solved by opening up people’s minds and, maybe, legislation. What I do through the play is use humour and theatre, and being one step removed from the actual people, to deliver their real words and get people to empathise and go “Oh, I’d never seen it this way” and “God, they're just normal Australians".
And how ordinary their lives are! No different from anyone you work with or go to school with. There’s nothing particular about this very hot-button issue that’s actually had an impact on them.
Anything unusual, unexpected come up in your research?
Most of the delightful stuff was the quirky way people dealt with parents and relationships. They're forced to come out on behalf of their parents at a very young age, when they hit kinder and primary school. What do kids talk about? Their parents. As soon as you say “My Mum does this and my other Mum does that” kids immediately go “Whaddya mean two mums??!!”.
They have to explain their lives and justify being different from a young age. As a result most of them are very good speakers and socially aware of how stereotypes are put on them.
How do kids differentiate between two dads or two mums?
When a kid says Mu-um they can tell by the inflection. Some use Mum variations, like you do with grandparents, Grandma, Granny, Nanny, Oma. A lot call their parents by their first names. Some are quite culturally aware that if you call someone Mum or Dad sometimes you’re forcing a role on them that has baggage. Using a first name can give them the respect of being a person first.
I interviewed people who were the by-product of a heterosexual marriage where one parent came out when they were four or five and they were raised by a mother at home and a gay dad outside the home.
“Whaddya mean two mums??!!”
There are all the positive examples of gay parents having kids. Then, as you say, there are straight couples with kids and one parent comes out, ripping apart the family. That’s just got tragedy written all over it. Where’s the positive outcome of that?
Yeah, absolute tragedy. At least at the time. I interviewed two daughters of a man who came out when the girls were 8 and 2 and he left the family. The younger girl had no memories of the conflict. Her memories kick in when everything was settled and they would go and stay with Dad. As far as she was concerned she only ever had a gay Dad.
Now they're in their mid-20s, mid-30s. The elder daughter said they had a really loving marriage, close friends, then things got horrible for a short time and once they all adapted everything was actually better than before. Finally everyone was speaking about what they wanted out of life.
What made it work there was the mother – and we don’t focus on this in the play as much as we should have, but I had to keep it on-topic. She said: “Of course I’m devastated my marriage has broken down but I’m not gonna let my girls suffer.” She was the one principally looking after the girls, shaping how they saw their father.
To me it would be one of the most harrowing things that could ever happen to a young family. What’s vital is the maturity of the adults and their ability to choose not to punish, not to hurt, to put the welfare of the children first. Doing that will always end in peace and continuing healthiness, I think.
Would seeing Gaybies, for example, make it easier for people dealing with this – kids and parents?
Absolutely. Your hardest job would be getting them there but it’s completely non-confronting. It’s full of humour and warmth and what it’d do for the kids is show them it’s not some terrible thing that Dad did to them but it’s actually not uncommon and you can move on from it and it does not mark them out as weird or different.
And it’s funny. And it’s got music. It’s human beings on stage. When we did it in Melbourne people were engulfed in laughter and really moved. That kind of theatre is really good for everyone.
It’s very difficult when you have one aggrieved parent causing trouble. In any situation where one parent leaves it’s up to the parent remaining and looking after the children to decide how they’ll shape their kids’ perspectives and I would hope they’d choose to put the kids first. But, you know, they often don't. God, how many family dramas have there been about vengeful mothers – or, in fewer scenarios, fathers – who poison the kids’ minds just because they’re so furious about what’s happened to them!
“My Dad’s gay – gotta problem with that?”
Of the kids you spoke to, what were their initial challenges?
It’s nearly always school that’s the hardest. Upper middle-class schools have fewer problems because those schools force students to be a bit more open-minded. If you went to an outer-suburbs school it could be tricky.
One guy, who’s now 38, was always on the defensive. One of the first things he’d say to a new friend was “My Dad’s gay – gotta problem with that?”. He wanted to find out straight away because he didn’t want to get to know them and after a week or two it get weird. He’d rather know the sort of person they were before investing too much time into them.
The most upset was a girl who was 4 and her sister was 2 when their mum left their dad and moved into a lesbian commune, having nothing to do with the kids for ages. All these years later I could still feel her pain. “How could my mum choose just not to be with me?” By 14 they were pretty much back in full-time care with Mum, but damage was done.
Did you come across much lasting hurt or disadvantage?
No, more than anything they had advantages. Being forced to become articulate at a young age is a skill that can only help in life because better communication skills means better jobs, means better relationships. Being in an unusual family helps you become a better communicator and more open to what life can be. Even if you face teasing at school and have to deal with the feeling of being a bit different, ultimately it’s been a reward rather than a punishment.
So, as Julianne Moore and Annette Bening would say, the kids are all right . . .
The kids are more than all right. They're flourishing. ❏
■ Neil Simon's Sweet Charity is at the Opera House until February 8. Book here
■ Read Ian's other interviews and reviews:
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